The Developing Brain

Few parents remember how their developing adolescent brain affected their perception of daily life. However, shaping treatment strategies around the teenage experience of the world is essential to improving treatment comfort, acceptance, and outcomes. 

Many parents do not understand why their teenage children occasionally behave in an irrational, impulsive, and sometimes dangerous way. They realize their teens don't think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. It is well-established that adolescents are more likely than young children or adults to take risks, frequently engaging in reckless experimentation with alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, unprotected sexual activity, violent and nonviolent crime, as well as reckless driving.

There is a biological explanation for this phenomenon. Adolescents differ significantly from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions because the teenage brain is a work still in progress. Humans often have to age well beyond their 20th birthday before their brain matures to fully adult levels. 

The part of the brain that is still developing is the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive decision-making. Developing brains may explain why teenagers can make so many bad judgment calls despite being aware of the possible consequences. They assess the risks differently from adults with fully developed brains. 

Teens are not oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions. Even if the negative consequences are fully known, however, they place more emphasis on the potential positive aspects of experience: the thrill, the shared adventure, the fun, the excitement of breaking the rules. 

Adolescents are more likely to:

  • Act on impulse
  • Misread social cues and emotions
  • Get into accidents 
  • Get involved in physical altercations
  • Engage in dangerous behavior

Adolescents are less likely to:

  • Think before they act
  • Consider the consequences of their actions
  • Change their inappropriate behaviors

Teenagers are also particularly vulnerable to mental disorders, especially in times of crisis and intense stress. Severe mental health problems are more common in adolescents than asthma or diabetes. One in five teens will suffer a mental or behavioral disorder serious enough to affect their daily lives. 

If parents have any concerns that radical or progressive mood changes are happening, they should seek help for their child immediately. It is not always easy to tell normal adolescent mood swings from actual mental illness. Certain behaviors appear both in normal teens and in adolescents with severe conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. 

Adolescents are particularly risk-prone when they are in the company of their peers. The heightened importance of peer influence is a hallmark of adolescent psychosocial functioning and there is little doubt that the effects of peer influence are stronger during adolescence than in adulthood. A 2005 study found that exposure to peers during a risk-taking task doubled the amount of risky behavior among middle adolescents (15–17), increased it by 50 percent among college undergraduates, and had no impact at all among adults.

Adolescents are at a greater risk of misusing drugs and alcohol because of their vulnerability to mental health conditions and their risk-friendly, developing brains. While lacking fully developed impulse control, the adolescent brain is primed for learning. Its reward system will succumb much faster to the treacherous soothing or euphoric effects of addictive substances.  

At Turnbridge, adapting treatment plans to coincide with our understanding of the adolescent brain improves outcomes and effectiveness. Every aspect of treating young patients is tailored to their experience of the world — from resistance to authority, to lower attention spans, to physical and hormonal changes.